I have reached that stage of my life when it becomes absolutely apparent that I do not know enough sea shanties. It’s not good enough to know words to just “Dance to thee daddy”, “Homeward bound” and “Blow the man down” when there’s an overflowing squeeze-box of songs that would bring the salt water to any man’s eye.
Hurrah then for collectors of sea shanties and other songs of the sea. Aside from raising the question of why I should have even a vestigial memory of Abdul Abulbul Amir (and his foe, Ivan Skavinsky Skavar), every tune listed here contains either a shiver of excitement or a glimpse of the bottomless sadness that only the sea can produce in a man.
Due to the consistency of the trade winds, the destination of the ship would have a large impact on the type of shanty being sung. Joyous outward-bound songs such as Rio Grande would even be associated with a specific action (in this case, turning the capstan, which raised the anchor):
An’ we’re bound for the Rio Grande,
Then away, bullies, away!
Away for Rio!
Sing fare-ye-well, me Liverpool gels,
An’ we’re bound for the Rio Grande!
Most of the shanties, of course, are treasure chests of heartbreak and longing. Who could not tremble at the siren call of Van Diemen’s Land?
Come, all you gallant poachers,
That ramble free from care,
That walk out of a moonlight night,
With your dog, your gun, and snare;
Where the lusty hare and pheasant
You have at your command,
Not thinking that your last career
Is on Van Diemen’s Land
Finally, Lord Franklin, a song not a shanty, but one of the very few songs guaranteed to make me shed a tear, as much for its comradeliness as its equally noble and foolish subject. It also holds perhaps the most plaintive opening stanza I know, particularly when heard in Bert Jansch’s unforgivably lovely version:
We were homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew